Meegan Hefford was just 25-years-old when she was found unconscious in her apartment in Mandurah, Western Australia.
On June 19, Meegan was rushed to Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth where doctors frantically tried to determine why such a young and fit woman was rapidly losing brain activity. It took two days for the medical team to discover that Meegan had a urea cycle disorder.
On June 22, Meegan was pronounced brain dead. Meegan’s death certificate lists one of the causes of death as “intake of bodybuilding supplements,” in addition to her undiagnosed urea cycle disorder.
Perth Now reported that Meegan’s use of protein supplements was a major cause of her sudden death. Unfortunately, the mother of a seven-year-old daughter and five-year-old son was unaware that she had a rare genetic disorder that stopped her body from properly breaking down protein.
Urea cycle disorder affects approximately one in 8,000 people, and in Meegan it caused a buildup of ammonia in her blood and accumulation of fluid in her brain.
Megan’s distraught family is calling for tighter restrictions on the dietary supplements industry, and for public warnings about high protein diets.
People suffering from urea cycle disorder have an enzyme deficiency which prevents protein from breaking down properly. This in turn leads to a buildup of ammonia in the bloodstream which poisons the brain, eventually leading to brain damage, coma, and finally death.
Michelle White, Meegan’s mother, said her daughter had gone on a strict diet earlier this year and ramped up her gym sessions in the lead up to a bodybuilding competition in September. She was eating a high protein-rich diet, which included taking supplements. Whilst studying paramedicine at Edith Cowan University and working part-time at Princess Margaret Hospital in telecommunications, Meegan also attended the gym twice a day.
Then, in early June, Meegan started complaining about feeling “weird” and lethargic.
Her mother said to her: “I think you’re doing too much at the gym, calm down, slow it down.”
Meegan was found unconscious by a real estate agent who was conducting a property rental inspection.
Michelle said: “I couldn’t believe what the doctors were telling me, she was dying. I said, ‘You have to give her more time,’ because she didn’t look sick, she looked beautiful.”
After the family said their goodbyes to Meegan, her organs were taken for donation.
“Meegan has saved four people’s lives because of her heart, her lungs, and kidneys. They couldn’t take her liver because it was shot. Losing Meegan, it’s so awful and I still can’t believe she’s gone but I have to focus on the positives that at least I had 25 years with her and she jammed so much into her life, it’s almost like she knew her time would be short.”
Michelle said that she was unaware her daughter was taking protein supplements until she found half a dozen containers in her kitchen. She believes the supplements were purchased both online and in shops. She also found a detailed diet plan.
It’s Michelle’s hope that Meegan’s death will be a wake-up call for the supplement industry, and that tighter regulations will be imposed to prevent any further tragedies.
“I know there are people other than Meegan who have ended up in hospital because they’ve overloaded on supplements. The sale of these products needs to be more regulated.”
Dr. Omar Khorshid is President of the West Australian Medical Association. In his opinion, people should stick to eating a balanced diet rather than trying to “trick their body” into building muscle mass.
“I think the problem with the supplement industry is that it’s really designed to make money for the companies which sell the products and not to provide any significant health benefit for the vast majority of people taking them. This case is obviously tragic and illustrates that you may not know you have a health issue that alters the way you metabolize.”
Simone Austin is an accredited practicing dietitian and President of Sports Dietitian Australia. She said too many people have the misconception that high-protein diets are necessary. As a consultant for AFL club Hawthorn, Miss Austin said more protein did not equal more muscle.
“Excess supplements can be more dangerous if someone already has health conditions, like renal impairment, but people won’t necessarily know they have that, so that’s why people need to be cautious and stick to what the guidelines say.”
Ms. Austin went on to explain that, despite the hype about protein, most people only require one gram of protein per kilogram of body weight, even for people who are reasonably active. Even very active people who aim to put on muscle mass might only need one and a half grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.
“It’s pretty easy to get that from food. We tend to let all sorts of people give nutrition advice. We should only let people qualified in the nutrition area give us specific advice.”
According to Nutrition Australia’s website, some athletes such as strength trained or endurance athletes, may require more protein, “with requirements of 1.2 grams to 1.6 grams per kilogram of body mass per day.”
The website also states that such intakes can generally be achieved by the overall increased food intake required to fuel training. It goes on to say that protein supplements and shakes can be very expensive and are not usually necessary.
[Featured Image by Kiattisak Lamchan/Shutterstock]